The family of Dante Martin with Governor Steve Bullock

In 2014, 30 individuals from Montana became organ donors, and saved 113 lives. Last weekend, the state of Montana honored these donors with a ceremony held at the Capitol Building in Helena. The Gift of Life Award ceremony provides families of those who gave the gift of life through organ donation in the past year a way to honor their loved ones and reflect on the impact that they made through organ donation. The ceremony also included an unveiling of the new Tree of Life sculpture created by Jim Dolan to honor Montana’s donors. The sculpture will be displayed throughout the summer in the Capitol Rotunda and in the following years during National Donate Life Month, which is in April.

Montana is number one in the nation for organ donation registration. Around 87 percent of the eligible population (18 and older) are registered for cornea, tissue and organ donation, the highest rate in the nation. This high registration rate allows for more donations to be made, and more transplant candidates to receive vital organs. Donation is also a healing process for some families, as the loss they have experienced has a positive side – another family does not have to suffer the loss of a loved one and another person is given a second chance at life.

“While these families have suffered a tremendous loss, I hope they can take some comfort in knowing that their loved ones have given the ultimate gift to others,” said Governor Steve Bullock. “By giving the gift of life, they have served our community. It is my privilege to honor them for this outstanding service.”

A leaf on the Tree of Life sculpture which is dedicated to donor Leonard Birkelo

The Gift of Life Award was inspired by a similar award in Washington. The Washington Gift of Life Award was legislated by a donor family and a bill was created designating an award to be given to donor families whose loved ones gave the gift of life in the past year. The Montana Gift of Life Award has not be legislated – there is no bill designating that the Montana event will happen every year but with the cumulative efforts of the Governor’s Office of Community Service and LifeCenter Northwest, and the amazing registration efforts of the Motor Vehicle Department, this event has already become a tradition. This year was the second year that the Governor hosted the event.

The Tree of Life was created by Jim Dolan, an artist from Bozeman, who specializes in three-dimensional, heat endured metal sculptures. With the sponsorship of the Office of Community Service, Dolan created this piece to serve as a reminder of the selfless gifts that organ donors and their families have given, and of the miracles that would not be possible without them. The names engraved on each leaf represent a Montanan who left a legacy of hope through organ donation.

This was the first LifeCenter Northwest event for Ashlei Brooks, Donor Family Program Manager, who said “There were a lot of pieces to put together in anticipation of this honoring event, and it was wonderful to see everything come together without a hitch. Everyone involved in the planning and preparation of the Gift of Life Award played such a key role in ensuring that the donor families were well cared for and that their loved one was respected in a meaningful way”. Brooks and Family Services worked in collaboration with our Community Relations department in order to plan and execute this event with intention to bring healing to families as well as publically recognize the gifts they gave in the past year. Brooks also noted the most touching moment for her, in which families were able to view their loved ones name on the Tree of Life, knowing that it will stand as a continual sign of honor for the gift their loved one gave.